A Culinary Masterpiece|From local, let Wazwan go global

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

In literal terms, Wazwan means ‘cook-shop’ but it actually represents the lavish, multi-course Kashmiri cuisine. Wazwan has been rightly called the ‘King of Feasts’, ‘Royal Feast’, ‘Grand Meal’ and so on. To some, wazwan is a form of art…a culinary heritage…a journey…an experience that we want to share with others.

This is no secret: Kashmiris have been predominantly non-vegetarians. And that is why wazwan primarily consists of lamb and chicken dishes cooked overnight by a team of junior chefs (waze), overlooked by the master chef (vaste waze). The richness of taste, texture, color and fragrance of Kashmiri wazwan is unmatched and unparalleled.

Wazwan is also very unique and its uniqueness lies in a number of things:

— Each dish is made from a single part of sheep or goat and every part of the animal is used in some way.

— It is cooked in copper vessels, which are coated with nickel, over wood fire.

— Meat is manually cut, pounded, minced, beaten, and flattened to get the flavors out.

— Average cooking time for the entire wazwan is more than 10 hours, typically overnight.

— Waza is not paid for the number of dishes, but for the quantity of meat to be cooked.

— The order in which the dishes are served is significant and fixed.

— Traditionally, it is consumed by 4 people on a big copper platter called traem. Each trami is served about 9-13 pounds (4-6 kilograms) of meat, costing about INR 4000-5000 (USD 55-70) each.

— It amounts to about 20,000 calories for meat and chicken served per trami, about 5000 calories per person.

The rich color and flavor of wazwan is because of the Kashmiri red chilies (or special spice mixture called ver), saffron (zafran or kesar) and cockscomb flower (called mouwal), being used in it. This cuisine is rich in protein, iron and vitamin B12, but being high in calorific value, one has to watch out for the health.

Here is a list of some of the most common and popular wazwan dishes out of a total of 36:

•             Goshtaba (minced meatballs with yoghurt-based white gravy)

•             Rogan Josh (meat with red gravy)

•             Rista (minced meatballs with red gravy)

•             Daanval Korma (meat with coriander-based gravy)

•             Hindi Rogan Josh (meat with red gravy)

•             Kabab (grilled meat on skewers)

•             Methi (intestines cooked in fenugreek)

•             Mach Kabab or Lahab Kabab (flattened or pounded red kababs)

•             Daniphol (hind leg meat without gravy)

•             Tamatar Paneer (soft cottage cheese with creamy tomato gravy)

•             Palak Rista (small meatballs cooked in spinach)

•             Marchwangan Korma (meat with red-hot spicy gravy)

•             Tabak Maaz (crispy fried lamb ribs)

•             Haakh (collard greens)

•             Charvaen (cooked liver with gravy)

•             Zafran Kokur (juicy saffron chicken)

•             Safed Kokur (chicken cooked in white gravy)

•             Aab Gosh or Dodh Ras (meat with milk-based white gravy)

•             Baem Choonth (Queen’s apple cooked with gravy)

•             Pulav (sweet, brown basmati rice with nuts)

•             Dum Aloo (potato balls cooked with creamy yoghurt-based gravy)

•             Nate Yakhni (meat with yoghurt-based white gravy)

•             Nadur Haakh (lotus stem cooked with spinach)

•             Nadur Yakhni (lotus stem cooked in yoghurt-based gravy)

•             Aloo Bukhara Korma (prunes cooked in gravy)

•             Mushrooms

•             Chutneys: onion, walnut, pumpkin, zeresht (red, sour barberry), radish

THE HISTORY

 “People who love to eat are always the best people.”

― Julia Child

Kashmir has been ruled and influenced by Chinese, Indian, Central Asian, and Persian civilizations. The history of Kashmir indicates various culinary practices of different settlers that fused into the Kashmiri cuisine. The art and secret recipes passed down from generation to generation. However, the origin of Kashmiri Wazwan is not very clear.

According to one theory, it came from medieval Iran (Persia) around the time of Budshah, but then there is very little similarity in our present-day cuisines. Then there’s an interesting theory that says wazwan refers to a ‘barber shop’ and long back, the barbers would also do match-making in the Kashmiri society as they had a lot of interaction with people. So over time, they also expanded to catering cooked food for those weddings. Again, this theory isn’t considered credible enough. Some believe that wazwan originated in Kashmir itself and it is totally indigenous.

The most authentic and popular theory dates its origin back to the 14-15th century when the Mongol (Uzbekistan) ruler, Timur, invaded India in 1348 during the reign of Nasi-ud-din Muhammad of the Tughlaq dynasty. Timur brought skilled cooks with him from Samarkand (Central Asia) to Kashmir. It is believed that the credit for popularizing wazwan goes to the Persian and Sanskrit immigrants in Kashmir. The term waze is basically a Sanskrit term waja, which means ‘to cook’. The origin of the term has also been derived from a Persian word, ashpaaz, which means a ‘special cook’. Together it led to the term ‘waza’.

The names of the wazwan dishes are influenced by Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and Central Asian cultures. The origin of kabab is credited to the medieval Arab; Korma originates from Turkey, and other meat dishes from Persia. Kashmiri spices, on the other hand, are known to have Sanskrit influence.

The Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) equivalent of wazwan is the saal. Both cuisines are similar with subtle differences, such as absence of onions, tomatoes and garlic in the Hindu version and absence of asafetida (hing) in the Muslim version. It is also believed that some of the dishes such as Rogan Josh, Yakhni and Aab Gosh were contributed by the Kashmiri Pundits long before the arrival of Muslims in the Valley. They are also credited for some of the vegetarian dishes that became a part of wazwan, such as Nadru Yakhni, Nadru Haakh, Dum Aloo, etc.

In the old Srinagar city is the neighborhood of Wazapora, where majority of the wazas lived. They even had a Waza Union, headed by a President. Some time back there were about 200 of them, but now only a few of the famous waza families engage in this profession as others have moved on to different fields.

THE PRESENT

The demand for wazwan is increasing as people have more money to spend on food. People serve it on occasions other than just weddings. A new trend is the way wazwan is being served in some modern families in Kashmir. Instead of 4 people sitting together to eat on a big trami, all guests at the same time, now people are serving the cuisine as a buffet where guests can eat at any time, any dish and quantity they want, sitting on a table instead of the floor.

There is a great scope and demand for Kashmiri wazwan in the international market. There are many challenges, such as cold storage, long-distance shipment, shelf-life, and hygiene, food safety and other quality regulations, that need to be tackled to export wazwan. Many businesses sell canned wazwan, so people are able to buy and eat it outside Kashmir, but some argue that it is not the same as freshly made food. Many restaurants in India offer it, cooked by modern master chefs, usually with some linkage to Kashmir. A few entrepreneurs outside Kashmir have started wazwan ventures to serve the large Kashmiri community as well as international food lovers, such as Mouwal and Uffi’s Kitchen in USA. What needs to be seen is the future of wazwan not only locally, but also globally.

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”

― Ruth Reichl

(Naira Yaqoob is Technical Writer & Documentation Specialist in California, USA)